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Movie Review: The Tashkent Files

Banners: Zee Studios, SP Cinecorp, Vivek Agnihotri Creates

Producers: Pranay Chokshi, Haresh Patel, Pallavi Joshi, Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri

Director: Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri

Cast: Shweta Basu Prasad, Mithun Chakraborty, Naseeruddin Shah, Pallavi Joshi, Pankaj Tripathi, Rajesh Sharma, Mandira Bedi, Prakash Belawadi, Vishwa Mohan Badola, Prashantt Gupta, Vinay Pathak

Writer: Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri (Story, Screenplay & Dialogue)

Music: Rohit Sharma

It takes a great deal of courage and a whole lot of research to weave a controversial narrative based on a true event, especially when you know it could split the nation into two polarised ideologies. Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri’s The Tashkent Files does this while making one realise one’s fundamental right to truth. It also makes one wonder whether the nation has been fed a ‘manufactured truth’ by those in power.

The Tashkent Files presents to us ‘a war of narratives’, as stated by one of the protagonists. A year after the India-Pakistan war of 1965, the second Prime Minister of India, Lal Bahadur Shastri, went to Tashkent, a capital city in the former USSR and now the capital of Uzbekistan. The reason for his visit was to jointly sign the Tashkent Declaration, a peace treaty, along with Mohammad Ayub Khan, the President of Pakistan. Twelve hours later, on January 11, 1966, Shastri breathed his last. Some said he died due to a heart attack, others sensed foul play.

In the film, Raagini Phule is a young journalist and the movie shows us her fight to bring what is alledged to be one of India’s biggest political cover-ups to the fore. On her birthday, Phule gets a phone call from a stranger who tells her about a conspiracy surrounding Shastri’s death. She sees this as a claim-to-fame opportunity and starts digging up information. This leads to a power tussle between Shyam Sundar Tripathi, the leader of the Opposition, and Natarajan, Minister for Home Affairs. The Tripathi Committee, comprising eight members, is formed to examine the true reason for Shastri’s death.

Credit goes to Agnihotri for writing a meticulously researched film. He backs up most lines and scenes with proof such as extracts from hard-to-access books (Conversations With The Crow and The Mitrokhin Archive) and footage from back in the day. He weaves the narrative with honesty and sensitivity. He makes sure he does not indoctrinate his viewers with opinions. He ends the film on a note that might awaken the responsible citizen within us and perhaps even nudge those in the corridors of power to pull up their socks. That’s the impact of the film!

While most of the film sticks to its main theme, there are a few patches where it tends to digress. There are moments when it ends up becoming a political rant.

Despite being almost two and a half hours long, the writing keeps the film engaging. You will find yourself completely engrossed in a room full of nine professionals who have assembled to discuss and contest the various theories surrounding Shastri’s death. Editor Satyajit Gazmer creates enough anticipation and intrigue. The integration of the interview of Anuj Dhar, who filed a Right To Information application to unearth the truth, and videos of Shastri’s sons render authenticity to the story.

At a few points, however, the sequences tend to become a bit too dramatic for a film like this. There are moments of comic respite which were unnecessary as they tend to dilute the impact of the film.

Cinematographer Uday Singh Mohite captures the mood of the film impeccably. It is set during winter. He nicely captures the misty mornings of Delhi and Uzbekistan, which adds to the gloom.

Details pertaining to the Cold War such as the Iron Curtain, the two strongest intelligence bureaus of that time and the presence of a strong spy network are a few of the many things that viewers are told to grasp the flow of events. The director has not shied away from sketching characters with religious prejudice, political biases and who are prepared to compromise their ethics to win a political game.

The Tashkent Files is a bold and an important film, in light of the environment that surrounds us today. It raises several questions and talks about truth being a luxury, presstitution, staging lies in newsrooms, concocting fake news, manufacturing consent, distorting history and the powerful versus powerless battle.

Performance-wise, Shweta Basu Prasad as Raagini Phule proves her mettle and aces every emotion. She carries the film on her shoulders with aplomb and steals your heart. She is a natural. Mithun Chakraborty as Shyam Sundar Tripathi delivers one of his best performances. Naseerussin Shah as Natarajan does not have much to do. Pallavi Joshi, Pankaj Tripathi, Rajesh Sharma, Mandira Bedi, Prakash Belawadi, Vishwa Mohan Badola, Prashantt Gupta and Vinay Pathak play their parts very well and make an impact.

Verdict: A film NOT to be missed!

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